If I were a respected theatre critic, I would just bellow, "Drop everything and order tickets to Souvenir right now. Don't even think of thinking about it. Just do it." And you would do as you were told.
I humbly acknowledge that I must work from a more gently persuasive angle. Let me begin by saying that Souvenir, the new play-with-music by Stephen Temperley that began previews last night at the Lyceum Theatre, may not be to everybody's taste. People who don't find it funny ought to be deported to somewhere else, although I can't think of any part of the globe that deserves such an affliction.
Take one great big helping of the funniest Carol Burnett skit that you can remember (Went With The Wind, perhaps), and another of the best stand-up comedy that you've ever seen, and top it off with the poignance of a good-to-great play starring Cherry Jones, and you'll have Souvenir.
I'm putting off actually describing what happens on stage at the Lyceum because, frankly, you haven't experienced it yet and you won't have anything to compare it to. Here is the full title: Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins. From those of you to whom the name of Florence Foster Jenkins means nothing, I beg a moment's patience. If you do know who she was, even if you own a copy of The Glory (????) of the Human Voice, the RCA album of her work, you know too much. You'll be expecting a sendup. I went, to tell you the truth, out of curiosity, wondering how on earth how anyone could wrest more than ten minutes' entertainment from a long-gone society lady's amateur efforts. I was also drawn by a report, read some time ago, that singer Judy Kaye, one half of the two-person cast, had a lot of trouble learning to sing in the Foster Jenkins style. I had no idea that Mr Temperley's play would be so masterful.
I had no idea that Souvenir was going to turn out to be the new Producers.
The other half of the cast is Donald Corren. He plays the part of Cosme McMoon, a musician who arrived in New York in the Twenties to make his fortune. To make a living, he helped out at singing lessons and such. Eventually - and not through music - he met another young man whose rich aunt was looking for someone to accompany her at a recital. Following up this lead would lead to McMoon's claim to fame.
Souvenir is seen through the eyes of Cosme (that's "Cosmay"). It is 1964, and Cosme is playing the piano at a supper club in Greenwich Village. Presently he responds testily to an interruption from the clientele, identifying himself immediately as a sharp-witted but discreet gay man. Gradually, he warms up to the story of his twelve-year partnership with Florence Foster Jenkins. The lighting - by Ann G Wrightson - changes subtly, a Louis XVI chair and side table whoosh out from the wings, and we are whisked more than thirty years back in time to Mrs Jenkins's suite at the Ritz-Carlton.
How to describe Ms Kaye's Florence Foster Jenkins? Someday, people will simply refer to it as a descriptor - "Remember Judy Kaye in Souvenir?" - but we're not there yet. There is the pigeon-breasted figure of Margaret Dumont. There is the high-toned fortitude of Norma Shearer. There is the aplomb of Ruther Draper's "Opening a Bazaar," and the plummy diction of Anna Russell's "Introduction to the Concert." But these are merely ingredients in the delicious blanquette of Ms Kaye's theatrical concoction. Her Madame Flo, brilliantly costumed by Tracy Christensen, is a monument of resolution, passionate about music and determined to share her gifts - with the nicer sector of the general public - for the benefit of "favorite charities." By the time Cosme comes on the scene, she has been asked to give a recital in the hotel's ballroom. After an exhaustive interview, in which the lady bountiful tells far more about herself than she learns about her prospective accompanist, she decides that he's her man. Now let's sing! In the Times article to which I linked above, Ms Kaye observes,
''It's hard work to sing badly well,'' Ms. Kaye said. ''You could sing badly badly for a while but you'll hurt yourself if you do it for long.'' Warm up just as you would for any performance. Learn the music as written. Then throw everything you know out the window.
The first words out of the singer's mouth are "Gualtier Maldè," from the verse that precedes the immensely famous aria, "Caro nome" from Rigoletto. The first sounds, vastly less familiar, are extraterrestrial, and, to last night's admittedly knowing audience, highly combustible. It takes Ms Kaye no time at all to establish her character's total, complete, absolute and utter lack of musicality. Tone, pitch, color, cadence, rhythm - Florence Foster Jenkins's voice was a black hole into which all of these qualities were been sucked, leaving only noise. It was not the noise that someone wanting to parody the operatic style of singing would produce. It is astonishing that Ms Kaye is able to approximate what we know it to have been from recordings. For, yes, indeed: Florence Foster Jenkins was asked not only to give recitals at the Ritz, and eventually, her big night at Carnegie Hall (which she filled); she was also asked to make records. Records that sold like hotcakes among Gotham's sophisticates.
The reason why you have to get tickets right now is that nobody is ever going to be able to do this show as well as Judy Kaye. In that, Souvenir is like The Producers, still a hit to be sure but one in which no subsequent actors have been able to shake the memory of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. Both shows are too closely tailored, by the script and by Vivian Matalon's excellent direction, to their creators. Mr Temperley wisely holds back from giving any musical number in its entirety; we hear only the "best" parts of "The Bell Song," "Adele's Laughing Song," "Fascinating Rhythm," and the rest. Someone had the genius to interpolate La Jenkins's recording of the Queen of the Night's second aria, by "Mr Mozart," into the show, thus sparing Ms Kaye undue vocal strain.
It is rather like watching someone walk on water. Doesn't this lady know that she's tone deaf? That's Cosme's question at the outset. The structural genius of Souvenir is its foundation rests upon this question. The drama of Souvenir is the evolution of Cosme's response to his employer's apparent wrong-headedness. In order to "go along," Cosme has some rough patches to get through, and these are recounted from his vantage at the supper club. At first, working for Mrs Foster Jenkins was a shameful compromise, something to do to pay the rent. Something that bought him time to work on his own compositions (two of which were recorded by the lady). He talks her out of giving a recital at Town Hall because his friends will find out what he's been doing. He tries similarly disingenuous arguments against the recording microphone, but loses the second time; that's why he puts up no resistance to Carnegie Hall. By the time of the 1944 concert - now, if not sooner, you understand R Michael Miller's smashing set - Cosme was an enthusiast, a connoisseur. "I heard Rosa Ponselle," he tells us, "and something was missiing!"
Nothing is missing from Souvenir, not even a sublime ending. At the climax, Florence Foster Jenkins, singing her umpteenth but final encore, the Bach-Gounod "Ave Maria," is disturbed by the commotion in the hall. (Effectively simulated, this shuts the live audience up completely.) The audience can no longer suppress its hysteria. Perhaps it's the singer's costume that pushes them into abandon (there was different gown for every number, and the last one had a few unbelievable accoutrements). Afterward, backstage, a weeping singer slyly counts on Cosme to reassure her that her voice is really beautiful, and he comes through sincerely. The next day, we're told, she's planning the next season of recitals. A short time later, she collapses, at Schirmer's, from a heart attack. Rumors of heartbreak are denounced by Cosme. How is this going to end? I asked myself. The answer: sublimely.
There is a second question about the Jenkins phenomenon: her "popularity." Souvenir inevitably raises this question, but, wisely, doesn't address it. I do not think that an equally ungifted singer would make much headway today, because society is so much looser and more casual than it used to be. It's hard to remember that laughter used to be inappropriate in almost all social settings. Respectable manners reached their heavily-starched zenith between the wars. Comedy provided a vital release from dour politeness, but beyond the relief of outright laughter there lies the transcendent misery of stifled laughter. Of transgressive, suppressed laughter. It is far more physically convulsive than expressed laughter. (Remind me to tell you how PPOQ and I caused an entire row of seat at Avery Fisher Hall to tremble, temblor-like, because of our bottled-up response to some truly ridiculous music.) You weep, you quake, you stuff your handkerchief in your mouth. Or you manage to stare down the urge - at least until you're re-infected by your quivering neighbor. Either way, it's wonderful, if not to do, than to have done. Nowadays, however, we are almost always allowed to laugh. I asked myself how Souvenir would go, if the audience were politely asked, after the notice about cell phones, not to laugh at the singing. I expect that the audience would simply be irritated. Happily, no such request is made at the Lyceum.
I really could go on and on. Spare me: see the show. (October 2005)
Copyright (c) 2005 Pourover Press